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Alternate Routes: Learning Spanish

In our final post of the Alternate Routes series, Erica Griffith shares the surprising things learning Spanish taught her about advocacy. Thanks to all of our contributors who lent their voices to this blog series! Read a few past posts here, here, and here, if you’d like. 

Life hands us inescapable moments of discomfort, but there are other times when we intentionally place ourselves there. Learning Spanish is one of those uncomfortable activities I’m trusting will have a favorable outcome. Recently, I asked my friend to teach me the language. Initially I thought it’d be a good thing to keep in my back pocket, being the second most spoken language on earth. But as things usually evolve, learning Spanish is becoming more than just a fun project—it’s becoming an avenue of understanding relationships and advocacy.

When it comes to friendship, understanding is critical. You spend time together, you ask pointed questions, you console, you laugh. A common definition of friendship is “walking alongside someone.” I’d like to add, “…and learning how they communicate.” Understanding a friend deeply is a step beyond providing support. Learning Spanish is teaching me to think differently about friendship and even doing justice, as both require humility, understanding, and willingness to listen.

My friend Juli, whose family is Colombian, drew me into Spanish. I started by watching her write down how to conjugate the verbs ser, estar, and tener and now, slowly but surely, we’re having basic conversations. As we work together I’m realizing a few things about learning a language, particularly outside of a classroom. There’s a way to approach learning language as doing justice, a way to posture ourselves towards understanding. Both are involved processes where discipline, consistency, and a teacher are all necessary. Advocacy requires action born out of understanding, which comes through the hard work of listening. My simple lessons with Juli are teaching me how to listen and how to be wrong. They instruct me in the essence of communication and the rewards of a strong connection with my teacher.

As I’ve made progress with the language, I’ve noticed four qualities that are essential for both learning Spanish and acting justly:

Listening: Language learning means tuning your ear to a new way of hearing. Pronunciation and tone matter. Learning these new sounds feels reminiscent of the old hymn line, “Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” Throughout this process, I’m entering Juli’s world and can’t assume my own methods of speaking. Because she taught me the importance of listening, I now can tell the difference between carro and caro or papa and papá. I wouldn’t be a very good student if I didn’t listen well or if I began by telling her I didn’t like the way a sentence was formed.

True learning doesn’t allow for pretense.”

Willingness: I also have to be okay with being wrong, a lot. During one lesson I said this sentence: “Yo soy un castillo.” I am a castle. Even though Juli is a good friend of mine, I still felt stupid. I don’t like when I can’t roll my r’s or when I stumble on a basic verb I’ve repeated a million times. But I’m willing to be wrong for the sake of carrying on conversations in Spanish. True learning doesn’t allow for pretense. In the same way, when I want to learn about someone else’s struggle, I can’t assume to know everything they’ve experienced or presume how I would respond to their difficulty if it were my own. Advocacy requires a willingness to be taught. In my lessons with Juli, I’m learning to notice where I may be blind to aspects of someone’s struggle.

Curiosity: As I continue to learn words and phrases, I realize I’m learning more than verbs and sentence structures; I’m learning how entire people groups communicate their true selves. For example, in English we say we love a lot of things. We love coffee, we love a t-shirt, we love an idea, we love a sibling. But in Spanish, te amo—“I love you”—carries much more weight than our general word for love. This variety of expressions gives artistry to feelings and the way others see the world. To learn those expressions is to say, in a small way, “I care about how you view life.” Being curious and actively working towards learning someone else’s language is practical proof that you want to know them. Because justice begins with solidarity, cultivating curiosity about others is essential.

Connection: An obvious part of learning a language is the relationship you cultivate with your teacher, especially if that person is already someone you know. As we talk together, bits and pieces of Juli’s family and story spill out. She told me wild stories of her parents’ lives in Colombia I doubt I’d have known had I not been learning Spanish from her. Our moments of connection during tutoring remind me that humans are built for each other. When you go to a person asking, “Can you teach me about (fill in their area of expertise)?” you’re making space for tighter connection. You’re saying they matter and you want to learn from them.

In all of this, I can’t help but be reminded that we have a God who entered into our language of humanity, a high priest who sympathizes with our every weakness and suffering. He taught us how to live justly through his example of humility and solidarity. Learning a new language might seem like a surprising path to advocacy, until we allow the process to teach us curiosity and a willingness to listen. The question is: will we be observant enough to see these paths that language can make?

By Erica Griffith

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